It's hard to understate just how valuable a performer veteran defensive back Corey Graham was for the Buffalo Bills during an ascendant 2014 campaign for the team's defense.
Which is funny, because he wasn't even supposed to be a starter for that defense. Sure, he played 70 snaps in a Week 1 win over Chicago, but only because top cornerback Stephon Gilmore was sidelined by injury. A month later - despite recording an interception and eight defended passes in the first three games of the season - Graham played only eight snaps behind a healthy secondary in a Week 5 loss to Houston, surrendering a 35-yard touchdown reception in that contest.
Graham played 15 or fewer snaps twice more after that Week 5 tilt, relegated to reserve status in a talented and deep Bills secondary. But the cream always rises in the NFL, and Graham did so at two different positions - something not many defensive backs can capably pull off in the same season.
When top safety Aaron Williams missed a Week 7 home game against New England, Graham stepped into the starting lineup at safety, logging 69 snaps - one behind fellow starter Duke Williams, and 50 more than departed "starter" Da'Norris Searcy - in a steady performance despite the short-notice position switch. (That week provided Graham's most extensive opportunity to play safety, but he also moonlighted there from time to time in other games, as well.) When starting cornerback Leodis McKelvin was lost for the season with an ankle injury in Week 11, Graham became a starting corner for the remaining five games.
All told, Graham played 778 snaps for the Bills in 2014, ranking third amongst secondary players behind Gilmore and Aaron Williams, the team's top corner and safety, respectively. Along the way, he recorded two interceptions, 16 defended passes, and a fumble recovery to go with his 84 tackles. Pro Football Focus, the respected site that numerically grades every player in the NFL, had Graham down as the eighth-best cornerback in all of football last season, and as Buffalo's highest-rated defensive back, to boot. Not bad for a (supposed) backup.
Oh! And he also played 187 snaps on special teams, good for ninth on the roster. The only two Bills special teams players that graded higher than Graham in that phase, again per PFF, were running back Anthony Dixon and wide receiver Marcus Easley.
Things appear to be changing for Graham again in 2015 under new coaches Rex Ryan and Dennis Thurman. For starters: Graham practiced predominantly at safety this spring, a trend that will almost certainly continue into training camp and the regular season. It's a move that signals two things: Buffalo's new coaches recognize Graham's biggest limitation (recovery speed) would be a detriment to him at corner in their more aggressive coverage schemes; and that they consider Graham too strong a performer to not have on the field somewhere.
But Graham's true value lies in his versatility, and the odds are far better than not that he'll be asked to play both corner and safety for the Bills in 2015. Gilmore and McKelvin have had their fair share of injury concerns, and the top reserve outside is second-round pick Ronald Darby, who may or may not be ready for prime time. The Bills also have third-year safety Duke Williams ready to take on a bigger role, which could cut into Graham's snaps some and force him back into the utility-infielder role he assumed at the outset of 2014. If Graham is going to maximize his snap count, he's going to be doing it at more than one position.
Gilmore is the Bills' most important defensive back (spoiler alert), and Aaron Williams is Ryan's best (and therefore most important) safety. For a second straight season, the Bills have concrete plans at corner and safety, and Graham is somewhat caught in between those two places. When the games are played this fall, however, the Bills will rely on Graham to be the glue that holds the secondary together, regardless of which position he plays - and on a team trying to ride its defense into the playoffs, a player performing at a high level in that role will be vital.